Abuse of Women Detained in North Korea Given Special Attention by United Nations
October 20, 2020
Later this month, the United Nations General Assembly will give special attention to North Korean government abuse of detained women. For a decade and a half, in the last week in October the UN General Assembly has held a session devoted to North Korean human rights issues. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK has reported to the Assembly, member countries have made statements, and a resolution has been introduced and subsequently adopted by the General Assembly calling for the North to make improvements in specific areas of human rights violations.
The first step in this annual process begins with the secretary-general of the United Nations submitting a report to the General Assembly entitled: “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” This year, the secretary-general’s report includes a significant section devoted to human rights violations against women detained by the government and rights abuses in prison camps.
This topic is one the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (2013-2014) gave special attention to in its comprehensive report on human rights violations. The release of that report was followed by numerous efforts to hold North Korea accountable and to further document its abuses.
Among the steps the UN Human Rights Council took after discussing the COI report was to establish a human rights office in Seoul, South Korea, under the authority of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with the mandate to continue monitoring and documenting rights abuses in the North. That office was officially opened in June 2015 by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein. In his speech inaugurating the office, he explained the reason for establishing the UN OHCHR Seoul office:
Less than 50 miles from here lies another world marked by the utmost repression and deprivation. Tens of thousands of Korean people have escaped that reality, and through hazardous means, reached a new life in the Republic of Korea. But millions remain trapped in the grip of a totalitarian system which not only denies their freedom, but increasingly their basic survival needs.
The field office provides permanent staff for documentation of human rights abuses in North Korea. It has been particularly helpful to have this resource in Seoul gathering information and also speaking out on the North’s repeated human rights violations.
The most important effort to date of the UN Seoul office, which highlights its important role of documenting human rights violations, is the publication of an extensive report on the torture, mistreatment, sexual abuse, and other rights violations against women detainees in North Korea. The report is aptly titled, Human Rights Violations Against Women Detained in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with the subtitle, —I Still Feel the Pain.
The report is based on in-depth interviews with over 100 women who were subjected to forced repatriation and subsequent detention in North Korea from 2009 to 2019. These detained women were among the tens of thousands who left North Korea to find opportunities in Northeast China to support themselves and help their families. Most of these women were among those who attempted to leave and failed or who reached China but were eventually caught and forcibly returned by Chinese officials.
A few years ago on one of my visits to Hanawon, the principal refugee support center in South Korea for newly arriving defectors from North Korea, I met with six or eight women who had recently arrived in the South from North Korea. I asked each of them if they had succeeded in leaving the North on their first try. Each one told me that it had taken multiple attempts before they were successful. One woman only made a successful escape after trying six times. After each failed attempt, the women were punished in North Korean reeducation camps. The Seoul UN field office report cited interviews regarding the treatment of women prisoners who were detained trying to leave the country or those who successfully reached China but were discovered and returned to the North where they were held.
The women who were interviewed subsequently succeeded in successfully escaping from North Korea and resettled in South Korea, where they were interviewed in confidential settings by the professional UN staff of the Seoul human rights office. The South Korean government has been supportive of the UN office, and these individuals were among the thousands of North Korean women who successfully fled the North under harrowing conditions and were able to find refuge in the South. The South Korean government has allowed personnel of the UN office in Seoul to interview these women. It is unfortunate that the UN mission has not been permitted by South Korean officials to interview male defectors as well, and it is not clear why that is the case.
Women particularly suffer from human rights abuses, and over 70 percent of the refugees from North Korea who have reached South Korea in the last decade and a half are women. In many ways they are more vulnerable, and many of those who have reached China have been trafficked—sold as “wives” to Chinese men, forced into prostitution, or required to work in the porn industry.
This report carefully documents the abuses they suffered under the hands the North Korean officials when they are captured attempting to leave North Korea or when they are detained by the Chinese and returned to officials in the North.
Internationally established legal standards for treatment of prisoners were consistently violated by North Korean guards. The report cites experiences of women who were held in detention centers before they were tried or sentenced, and some were imprisoned in forced labor camps where they were harshly treated. These victims were held in unsanitary conditions, denied privacy, as well as harassed and humiliated. Most suffered much worse.
A number described being deprived of food. One said she was “given a handful of corn per meal.” Another said, “I was not provided even with corn. I barely survived by being fed with five small potatoes. I was extremely hungry. I even ate rice and other leftovers in the water after washing dishes of prison officers.”
Beatings of women are routine. One woman describes a typical incident:
The food isn’t very tasty in the kyohwaso [reeducation camp], so while out in the fields [another woman] picked three peppers and hid them in her pocket. Every time we go in and out of the cells they search us, and the peppers were found. She was reported to the MPS officer who kicked her in the stomach so hard that she flew a meter across the room. He then got a wooden stick, which is used for farming, and started hitting her on her legs. She started bleeding from the mouth.
Guards ignored international standards against sexual abuse of female prisoners. One of the women interviewed by the Seoul UN office reported a typical experience of witnessing an officer “who called out a woman in her 20s” while the rest of the detainees were told to go to sleep. “She was told to remove her clothes and she was sexually abused.” After the incident, detainees reported the case to the officer in charge of the preliminary investigation, “but the detainees who reported this were later punished and beaten up.”
Among the most horrific accounts were those involving abortion and infanticide. One of the interviewees told of the experience she and another young woman had when they escaped to China but were captured and returned. One of the women had become pregnant in China, so “the guards knew that her baby had Chinese blood.” North Korean attitudes toward children of mixed race are particularly vicious, and “the local laws prevented any North Korean woman from giving birth to a mixed race baby.” The physician at the detention told her to get an abortion, although she wanted to keep the baby: “She was eventually forced to have an abortion and was sent to a kyohwaso [reeducation camp].”
North Korean guards sought to cause abortions through beatings or especially hard labor. One of the witnesses reported that she knew “two women, three months and five months pregnant, who were kicked very badly so that they would have lost their baby by the time they left the [detention] facility.” The two had reported their pregnancy because they expected to be treated better. Instead, they were both beaten.
Equally brutal were the steps taken by guards to kill newborn children who were born alive. One witness reported that she was directed by guards to wrap the newborn child of another prisoner and put it outside. It was winter, and the temperature was below freezing. The woman who had just given birth had to be at work the following day.
Another prisoner reported a similar experience. Despite a pregnant woman being forced to carry out physically very demanding work in order to cause a miscarriage, she gave birth to a baby who was born alive. One of the prisoners heard the child crying. The prison guard placed the baby face-down, wrapped it in plastic, and carried it away.
This well-written report by the UN’s Seoul office identifies international human rights standards that have been violated by the North Korean regime and further confirms the reports of gross human rights abuses catalogued by the UN Commission of Inquiry and other human rights researchers. News media and human rights groups have given considerable attention to the documentation and careful attention of the report by UN personnel in the Seoul UN human rights office. (See, for example, Human Rights Watch, Jurist, and Reuters.)
Signe Poulsen, who has led the UN office in Seoul since it was opened in 2015, deserves special recognition for the excellent work of the office, particularly for this report on North Korea’s human rights abuses against women. In addition to her leading the documentation effort of cruelty and international rights violations, she has been an important voice speaking out for human rights in North Korea. Poulsen recently accepted another position in the United Nations organization in the Philippines. She will be missed in Seoul.
In the report to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reported that UN monitoring of North Korea indicates “systematic human rights violations in detention centres in the DPRK, including sexual violence against women and girls. These violations appear to be taking place under the direct authority of two Ministries, with likely involvement of higher authorities.” She went even further, suggesting that these violations “may amount to crimes against humanity, which could engage the individual criminal responsibility of DPRK officials.”
These latest actions of the UN General Assembly, UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and UN OHCHR Seoul office reflect the continued effort of the United Nations to focus attention on North Korea rights violations and the importance of their efforts in documenting the abuses.
Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.
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